Wearing a Green Shirt: When Writers Embrace the Ugliness of Their Villains

If it doesn’t melt Nazi faces then I don’t want to wear it!

In my bachelor days, I had a theory about fashion, which I am sure was fatally flawed, wholly fallacious, and almost as detrimental to my dating life as my near constant state of inebriation. Wear something ugly! My most memorable find was a chartreuse, long-sleeved shirt that had been relegated to the deepest discount section of the clearance rack. The final, damning touch was that it matched the 1970s-era velour upholstered furniture in my parent’s Arizona home. By-golly, that was the shirt for me! I was in the market for something that would melt the face off a Nazi as surely as opening the Ark of the Covenant. Ugliness grows on you. You can come to love it.

I was reminded of that shirt while running a character development exercise for a writer’s group several years later. Each participant was shown an image of a person (snagged semi-randomly from the Internet) and was tasked with finding their subject’s voice. Having established their personas, the group engaged in a dialogue between these fictitious characterizations of real life people. It was a polite version of an old people watching game that I used to enjoy with a friend, sitting at the second-story window of a downtown bar — me, wearing my hideous green shirt. We supplied the passing pedestrians with invented dialogues and monologues, delivered in the shrill squawk of Terry Jones and John Cleese in drag. Good times.

And the award for Most Congenial goes to Rev. Henry Kane!

Among the assorted photos of hobos, goths, ravers, and . . . more hobos was a portrait of Daniel Franzese, an actor in the film, “Missing Person,” taken during the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. None of us knew who he was at the time, but one glance at the smarmy smirk on his face and hipster outfit topped off with a hunter’s cap was enough to engender instant contempt from everyone in the room. One member of the group was particularly aggravated by the cut of Franzese’s jib, and this contempt became a roadblock for his imagination. He couldn’t find a voice. Franzese was his green shirt. I emailed him the picture. “You have to write about this man!”

When writing fiction, the green shirt represents the repulsiveness in which you must clothe yourself to fully realize a character. It is the person who you don’t want to write about but are compelled to anyway. The wrongness, the vileness, the absolute depravity of this character stares back at you from the page, but you can’t turn away. Quite the opposite, you are there to be fitted by his verminous tailor. The sound of each keystroke is a footstep in this horrible being’s grimy shoes, as you walk together that last dreadful mile down tenebrous alleys that you had never before dared to tread.
I’ll autograph your copy.

My most memorable green shirt character is still Lon, the antagonist in a short story called Fast Learners, first published in issue #9 of Murky Depths. Reviewers characterized him as “a loathsome individual” and “a complete waste of flesh,” which I agree with completely. As Daniel W. Powell put it, “he takes what he wants, relegating those around him — human or not — to mere objects,” or as Lon would say, “I never slept with anyone who I thought was a person”Fast Learners was rejected by the first two publications that I submitted it to on account of its brutality. I couldn’t help but agree, and I was worried that I would never find a market for it.

Like Steve Martin’s career, my story took a turn for the worse.

From the very first paragraph, I knew that Lon would be disgusting and obnoxious. “His polo shirt doubled as a napkin, grease stains running perpendicular to the faded green stripes.  His microfiber slacks were creased in all the wrong places . . . The overblown pimp ran a hand over his scalp, dislodging flakes of dandruff.  Whether it was pomade or body oil alone that kept his hair in place, Enid couldn’t guess.”As the story progressed, he became something far worse. I was fascinated by his wickedness. Holding my hand, Lon guided me in a direction that I had never meant to go. He gets his comeuppance in the end, but this is merely my petty revenge on him for hijacking my story with such sinister ease. As I wrote those final paragraphs, I dreaded what he would inevitably inflict upon my protagonist. There was no happy alternative. This had to happen, and I felt sick to my stomach as I wrote, “and if you hit me again — if you move even a little, I am going to bounce your head on this floor until it splits like a melon — you hear me — and even that won’t stop me from fucking you.”

I had never written a rape scene before. I don’t want to again, but I know that this green shirt is still in my closet. I wore it again a few months later when I wrote an unsettling story about child abuse. I’m looking at it now, feeling the fabric between my fingers, thinking about all of the awfulness in the world, inside of me, and feeling like if I can commit some portion of that to paper then maybe the most minuscule fraction of it will remain imprisoned there. So much of fiction depends upon the reader’s suspension of disbelief. The green shirt, on the other hand, is part of a reality that we desperately want to disbelieve, knowing all the while in the back of our minds that it is all too real and may even lurk in our own wardrobes.
[This is a revised version of my article, “Writing a Green Shirt,” originally posted on the Bedford Writer’s Group blog.]

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